Where will Army take Pakistan?

World leaders plead for the restoration of democracy, as the region

In India, and in other nations, the wait is on to see the direction and complexion of Pakistan's new regime led for now by Army chief Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf.

Tuesday's surprisingly calm coup is the fourth in Pakistan's short history and introduces a large element of uncertainty between two nations that now have nuclear weapons. India's military is on high alert - again. And even recent rhetorical overtures for peace between India and Pakistan are dashed. (See Pakistan story on page 8.)

A former commando, General Musharraf reportedly orchestrated this past summer's battle between the two nations in the high mountains of Kashmir.

"For now, Musharraf is going to be known in India as the guy who brought us Kargil," says E. Sridharan, an analyst at the Institute for the Advanced Study of India in New Delhi.

Musharraf is treading a fine line. He has not yet called for new elections, which the Constitution requires within three months. But, unlike previous military coups, neither did the Army put the country under harsh martial law. By dismissing all four Pakistani state governments, Musharraf has shown that the military is not looking for a quick change, but is opting for a complete reform of the Pakistani system.

Musharraf does not want to appear as a hard-liner and thus isolate Pakistan further. Yet savvy Pakistanis know that Washington does not want an unstable Pakistani nuclear state to disintegrate further.

"For [Musharraf] to have his finger on the nuclear button worries me to no end," says Sumit Ganguly, an Indian-American visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Ganguly goes on to say that Musharraf was "brought up" by Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who took power through a military coup in 1977. He was a militant and considered by some to be a Muslim fundamentalist. Some experts say that now, in addition to the possibility of increased Pakistani aggression in the disputed Kashmir region, Musharraf's take-over could strengthen Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, and its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The danger in the region, experts say, is that while India and Pakistan know full well the consequences of war, especially since they are modernizing their militaries, there is always a less rational temptation to use each other as an excuse to divert attention from domestic problems.

Gaining control of the long-disputed territory of Kashmir, for example, is a central aim of Pakistani policy - more than most outsiders understand.

The main aim of Pakistan's gamble this spring by starting the "Kargil war" - which eventually led to Tuesday's coup - was to internationalize the emotional issue of Kashmir. Pakistani leaders wanted international attention and intervention on behalf of their claims for Kashmir.

That inconclusive war became a jumble of miscalculations on the part of both Mr. Sharif and the Pakistani military. For many reasons, Sharif lost face, both at home and abroad, and was unable even to secure the backing of ally China. It was an embarrassment for the Pakistani military as well. In hindsight, the Pakistani military felt it could internationalize Kashmir through a conventional war since the new nuclear status of the two states would provide a threat that India would not want to test.

Yet instead of creating sympathy for Pakistan on Kashmir, the UN Security Council condemned the cross-border adventure by Pakistan - one that Pakistani leaders at first pretended ignorance.

Then, after Sharif visited President Clinton on July 4, the mujahideen fighters and Pakistani regulars, who had occupied the top of the Kashmir mountains, were asked to withdraw without being able to declare victory - even though they occupied the heights for months, and humiliated the Indian Army for much of the fight.

"The lesson from Kargil and the coup is the historic folly of nuclear adventurism," says Praful Bidwai, a disarmament expert in New Delhi.

Then there is Afghanistan. The position of the new Pakistani regime is of intense interest in the region. Sharif played a double game with his northern neighbor. He continued to build up the orthodox Taliban regime in Kabul through the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency, hoping to create a strategic proxy state.

At the same time, the Clinton administration pressured him to crack down on the Taliban, to end terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and to somehow deliver Osama bin Laden - suspected of instigating the US Embassy bombings in 1998 - in return for needed loans and aid.

Sharif was frustrated on both fronts. He was unpopular in Kabul for his arm-twisting and was portrayed in Pakistan as a Washington stooge for his position on Mr. bin Laden, and for withdrawing from Kargil - seen as a holy war by Islamists.

Afghanistan remains highly important to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the only other two states to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul.

It is also significant to the government of Iran, which supports the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces that still occupy the northwest corner of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long been seen as supporting Pakistan's presence in Afghanistan - as a check on Iran.

*Justin Brown contributed to this report from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.